ATLANTA — His name is all over the baseball record book and, indeed, Hank Aaron could do it all.
Sure, he's remembered mostly for dethroning the Babe to become baseball's home run king on the way to 755, but don't forget about the .300 average, or the graceful way he fielded his position, or the deceiving speed he showed on the basepaths.
Yet, when talking about the true measure of the man, there was far more to “Hammerin’ Hank” than his brilliance between the lines.
Exuding grace and dignity, Aaron spoke bluntly but never bitterly on the many hardships thrown his way — from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the ugly, racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America's most hallowed records.
He wasn't hesitant about speaking out on the issues of the day, whether it was bemoaning the lack of Blacks in management positions, or lobbying against putting Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame, or calling on those involved in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal to be tossed from the game for good.
“He never missed an opportunity to lead,” former President Barack Obama said, describing Aaron as an “unassuming man” who set a “towering example.”
Right up to his final days, the Hammer was making a difference.
Just 2 1/2 weeks before his death Friday at age 86, Aaron joined civil rights icons to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. He wanted to spread the word to the Black community that the shots were safe in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
“I feel quite proud of myself for doing something like this,” Aaron said. “It’s just a small thing that can help zillions of people in this country.”
The Atlanta Braves, Aaron's longtime team, said he died in his sleep. No cause was given.
The Hammer set a wide array of career hitting records during a 23-year career spent mostly with the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, including RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.
But the Hall of Famer will be remembered for one swing above all others, the one that made him baseball’s home-run king on April 8, 1974.
It was a title he would hold for more than 33 years, a period in which Aaron slowly but surely claimed his rightful place as one of America’s most iconic sporting figures, a true national treasure worthy of mention in the same breath with Ruth or Ali or Jordan.
Another former president, Jimmy Carter, described Aaron as “a personal hero.”
“A breaker of records and racial barriers, his remarkable legacy will continue to inspire countless athletes and admirers for generations to come," said Carter, who often attended Braves games with his wife, Rosalynn.
George W. Bush, a one-time owner of the Texas Rangers, presented Aaron in 2002 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor.
“The former Home Run King wasn’t handed his throne,“ Bush said in a statement Friday. “He grew up poor and faced racism as he worked to become one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Hank never let the hatred he faced consume him."
Aaron’s death follows that of seven other baseball Hall of Famers in 2020 and two more — Tommy Lasorda and Don Sutton — already this year.
“He was a very humble and quiet man and just simply a good guy," said 89-year-old Willie Mays, who finished with 660 homers. "I have so many fond memories of Hank and will miss him very much.”
Before a sellout crowd at Atlanta Stadium and a national television audience, Aaron broke Ruth’s home run record with No. 715 off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Aaron's career total was surpassed by Barry Bonds in 2007 — though many continued to call the Hammer the true home run king because of allegations that Bonds used performance-enhancing drugs.
Bonds finished his career with 762. Aaron never begrudged someone — not even a tarnished star — eclipsing his mark.
His common refrain: More than three decades as the king was long enough. It was time for someone else to hold the crown.
Besides, no one could take away his legacy.
“I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played,” Aaron said, summing it up better than anyone.
Bonds praised Aaron “for being a trailblazer through adversity and setting an example for all of us African American ballplayers who came after you.”
Aaron’s journey to Babe Ruth's mark was hardly pleasant. He was the target of extensive hate mail as he closed in on Ruth's cherished record of 714.
“If I was white, all America would be proud of me,” Aaron said almost a year before he passed Ruth. “But I am Black.”
Aaron was shadowed constantly by bodyguards and forced to distance himself from teammates. He kept all those hateful letters, a bitter reminder of the abuse he endured and never forgot.
“It’s very offensive,” he once said. “They call me ‘nigger’ and every other bad word you can come up with. You can’t ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for Black people in America. It’s something you battle all of your life.”
After retiring in 1976, Aaron became a revered, almost mythical figure, even though he never pursued the spotlight. He was thrilled when the U.S. elected Obama as its first African American president in 2008. Former President Bill Clinton credited Aaron with helping carve a path of racial tolerance that made Obama’s victory possible.
“You've given us far more than we'll ever give you,” Clinton said at Aaron's 75th birthday celebration.
Aaron spent 21 of his 23 seasons with the Braves, first in Milwaukee, then in Atlanta after the franchise moved to the Deep South in 1966. He finished his career back in Milwaukee, traded to the Brewers after the 1974 season when he refused to take a front-office job that would have required a big pay cut.
While knocking the ball over the fence became his signature accomplishment, the Hammer was hardly a one-dimensional star. In fact, he never hit more than 47 homers in a season (though he did have eight years with at least 40 dingers).
Aaron was a true five-tool star.
He claimed two National League batting titles. He finished with a career average of .305.
Aaron also was a gifted outfielder with a powerful arm, something often overlooked because of a smooth, effortless stride that his critics —with undoubtedly racist overtones — mistook for nonchalance. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner.
Then there was his work on the basepaths. Aaron posted seven seasons with more than 20 stolen bases, including a career-best of 31 in 1963.
Six feet tall and listed at 180 pounds during the prime of his career, Aaron was hardly an imposing player physically. But he was blessed with powerful wrists that made him one of the game’s most feared hitters.
Aaron hit 733 homers with the Braves, the last in his final plate appearance with the team, a drive down the left field line off Cincinnati’s Rawley Eastwick on Oct. 2, 1974. Exactly one month later, he was dealt to the Brewers for outfielder Dave May and minor league pitcher Roger Alexander.
The Braves made it clear they no longer wanted Aaron, then 40, returning for another season on the field. They offered him a front office job for $50,000 a year, about $150,000 less than his playing salary.
“Titles?” he said at the time. “Can you spend titles at the grocery store? Executive vice president, assistant to the executive vice president, what does it mean if it doesn’t pay good money? I might become a janitor for big money.”
Aaron became a designated hitter with the Brewers, but hardly closed his career with a flourish. He managed just 22 homers over his last two seasons, going out with a .229 average in 1976.
Even so, his career numbers largely stood the test of time.
Aaron still has more RBIs (2,297), extra-base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856) than anyone in baseball history.
Hank Aaron’s survivors include his wife, Billye, and their daughter, Ceci. He also had four children from his first marriage to Barbara Lucas — Gail, Hank Jr., Lary and Dorinda.
Long after his career was over, Aaron acknowledged that today’s athletes are bigger, stronger and more fit.
Still, he would have been a success in any era.
“I may not have hit 70 homers in a season,” Aaron once said, “but I would have been up there.”